Home Comics INTERVIEW: Christopher Sebela on .SELF and privacy’s “new normal”

INTERVIEW: Christopher Sebela on .SELF and privacy’s “new normal”

The CROWDED writer discussed the origins of his "pandemic book" and how it relates to our relationship with technology, mental health, and more.

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Christopher Sebela is the writer of critically-acclaimed comics like Crowded, Shanghai Red, and the upcoming Foulbrood, launching soon on Kickstarter. His latest comic, .Self (pronounced “dot self”), features the sort of surprisingly grounded day-after-tomorrow sci-fi high-concept one might say Sebela specializes in: in a world where a company called Postscript allows people to back up their entire lives onto a file, a seemingly-ordinary woman named Nat Winters discovers that her file has been hacked and torrented, causing chaos to ensue.

With art by Cara McGee, colors by Rebecca Nalty, and letters by Aditya Bidikar, the first issue of .Self is available now on Comixology Originals, and I can’t recommend it more highly for people who like bold, thoughtful science fiction. I sat down with Sebela for an interview about the new series, as well as his thoughts on identity, privacy, collaboration, and more.


Gregory Paul Silber: So I know it’s a big gauche to ask a writer how he gets his ideas, but I really am so curious about the genesis of .Self. It’s the kind of thing that at once feels totally off the wall, like I’ve never seen anything like this before, but also absolutely feels like something that is going to be a reality sooner than later.

Christopher Sebela: This one is hard. I don’t know exactly where I came up with the idea. I just remember thinking about the concept of like, backing ourselves up onto hard drives. Black Mirror has done it to some degree. But then I thought, well, what would happen if that file got stolen, and then put on like BitTorrent, and then everybody had access to it? What would happen then? And it just seemed like a recipe for complete chaos. I love ideas like that. Then I just started sort of figuring out like, why does this technology exist, and you know, just trying to build a sort of sensible world. I didn’t want to make it where like, it was. I don’t know. Like, I still wanted it to be sort of a niche thing where it wasn’t like, I don’t know, bigger than it was. I was trying to tell a small story, I guess, but with big ideas. So yeah, this one always baffles, I could not tell you. I just remember like writing down the words, “downloadable people.” And that was sort of the genesis for everything.

Silber: Yeah, it feels appropriate that .Self is such an intimate story, because our identities are such intimate things, right? The thing that came to mind for me, is… I’ve never done 23andme or anything like that, but I’m so reticent about it because I’m like, “I don’t want a company owning my DNA!”

Sebela: [Laughs] Yeah.

Silber: It seems sounds so crazy to say out loud, but that’s–

Sebela: That’s our new our new normal. Yeah.

Silber: But much like Crowded did for commentary on the gig economy, .Self seems to envision this world where this crumbling of our privacy, and our tendency to give more and more and more of ourselves and our personal information to these private corporations, it just kind of seems to take things to a logical conclusion. So how concerned are you about this direction that we seem to be heading in? And how did that inform the way that you wrote .Self?

Sebela: I think I’m as concerned as anyone else really. I mean, I am perpetually online, but I try to safeguard myself, like, I’m not on Facebook anymore. I have burner emails to sign up for any anything that isn’t like a personal, email with people or like, direct business stuff. More and more it just seems supremely invasive. And you know, I’m not a fan of it [laughs]. It’s like the frog in the pan of water, you know, it’s just slowly getting warmer. We’re not being dropped in at a full boil. We’ve just been slowly getting more and more used to the idea of that our privacy is a much different thing now than it was, you know, 30 years ago. So I try to be as private as I can, and limit myself but also I give way too much away online, like everybody does. I just feel bad about it afterwards, I guess.

Silber: Yeah. I it’s just one of those things where unless you completely take yourself off the grid it’s really hard to have privacy in any way that would be recognizable to a person even 20 years ago at this point, I think.

Sebela: Yeah, I think you just have to make your make your decisions, like what you’re willing to give up. So I’m still, working on what I feel comfortable giving up.

Silber: At the risk of asking you to give up too much, without spoiling this first issue, .Self seems to explore the different ways that we shape our private identities, including gender. Again, not trying to give too much away about the reveal in the first issue. But if you were to meet a blank version of Christopher Sebela, how might that they be different, and what things do you think might be unchanged?

Sebela: I’m sure they’d still be equally as… obsessive as I can be. But about different things. I mean, a lot of what .Self was for me, was this idea of like, the things that we we put aside, as we move ahead in life. There are all these different dreams and thoughts you have about where your life is going, and what you want to do. And there are things that, in order to get where you want to go, you put certain things aside. In .Self, these blanks are about exploring the stuff that our main character Nat has put aside in order to gain her comfortable life. And these are sort of all her deferred dreams, trying to make their shot at things. So, yeah, more than anything, it’s very much about, like, being at a place in your life where you’re comfortable. You achieved a lot of what you had in mind and realizing that, that doesn’t… that doesn’t fulfill everything. I don’t know.

I mean, a lot of the book is also about depression… about like, “well, why can’t I be happy with what I have?” Which I didn’t even realize until I was probably about three or four issues into writing it. I was like, oh, okay, that’s what this book is about. I mean, it’s a big stew of a lot of different things. I mean, there’s privacy stuff and identity. With myself, like, they’d all be sort of like me, I think. They’d all have bad vices that they were unable to stop themselves from indulging. I’m sure most of them would probably be more professional than me. Doing much more fancy jobs than I am. So I don’t know. Luckily, that’ll probably never happen. So I don’t have to actually face myself in that stark of a way,

Silber: I do want to piggyback off of something you said about the book being about depression. I’m sure it even harder for you, being the writer. But as a reader, it hit me that that was an unexpected aspect that I saw in it because you have this main character who is talking about how she has kind of reached this point in her life where she feels a sense of stability, she’s happy with her partner, she’s happy with her job, or at least she keeps saying that she’s happy. And we don’t know, or I don’t know yet, if it’s an unreliable narrator situation. But this idea that our sense of happiness, or perhaps lack thereof, is tied to our sense of self, the identity that we’ve shaped, or the identity that we think we have might not necessarily gel with who we actually are… it does seem to be something you’re you’re exploring.

Sebela: You know, this was one of the pandemic books for me. So we started working on this summer of last year. We were right in the thick of it. I was definitely dealing with a lot of the weird mental fallout of that. So I guess, it was much more on the forefront of my brain than I expected. I mean, it depends on the book. Some books, I will write now and will know precisely what they’re about. .Self was one of those ones that I wasn’t sure what it was about until I got into the middle of it. And then I could sort of step back and realize, “Oh, here’s what I’m doing. And here’s what I’m sort of, you know, sorting through.” So it was an interesting reveal for me, but it totally feels like it fits considering the state of the world when we were making it, and the state of world now.

Silber: Let’s talk about your collaborators. Because we’ve got line art by Cara McGee, colors by Rebecca Nalty, letters by Aditya Bidikar, among others. I’m a big fan of Crowded and it feels like the team is doing a similar trick here that you did with that one, where it’s at heart a very dark premise. But the look of the book, is pretty bright. It’s colorful. There’s almost cartoony feel. Why is that juxtaposition important? Both for this story, and from what I’ve observed, it’s something you’ve done in your other work to.

Sebela: I can never go full grimdark on stuff. I mean, I can occasionally, but for the most part, I like taking these messed up ideas and putting them across in a light-hearted fashion. And, you know, having it actually be fun. There’s definitely some sad bits sandwiched in there. And same with Crowded, there’s a lot of like, grim shit going on in there. I don’t know, I just don’t want to live with that in my head for for however long I work on a book. And yeah, for this one, I really wanted to work with Cara for a while. And I think the juxtaposition felt really interesting to me. I had no idea what the book would look like, with her drawing it, and I think that’s what excited me most about working with her. It was just like, “cool, I’m just gonna give you a script, and you do what you think is right for it. And I’m super excited.” And it turned out better than I than I expected.

I’m terrible at colors. So I let Cara pick the colorist but yeah, I think Rebecca works really well with Cara’s stuff and brightens everything up. And Aditya I’ve worked with before and really wanted to work with again. He’s super cool about collaborating on like, stylish stuff for lettering. It was a lot of fun. Like, I just wanted to get people who I thought were cool and fun to work with. I wanted it to be an enjoyable experience. Even if, you know, we’re occasionally talking about some unfun stuff. Luckily, everybody’s schedules were open at the same time. So it was a nice little miracle.

Silber: I’m actually wondering, since you brought all that up. It seems like things are very simpatico between all the collaborators. But like, when you’re writing a script, do you put in your your panel descriptions and whatnot “hey, let’s not make things too disturbing with the violence here. Let’s not make things too dark.” Or has it just kind of coincidentally happened that your collaborators envision these worlds this way?

Sebela: Yeah. I mean, I don’t ever give direction. I feel like I tend to write a script the way I see it being drawn. I wouldn’t hand Cara a script with like, “oh, and then this, like, peels their face off or something” because it just doesn’t make sense to me. So, I think my scripts are… not quite so dark. But there’s also times where I do have some dark stuff. It’s about just having trust in your collaborators. And knowing that even if their vision of a certain scene doesn’t match yours, that’s the fun of comics. It’s like the alchemy of like merging Cara’s vision with my vision and seeing what the end result is.

Silber: That makes perfect sense. It definitely seems to have worked out very serendipitously. I have to ask this: if Postscript existed in real life, would you be tempted to use it?

Sebela: Sure, yeah. Definitely. Trying to come up with like, a commercial purpose for Postscript was one of the harder parts of the book. But like, once I figured out the angle that you back yourself up, and then you have one last chance to say goodbye, after you die, and you can wrap up all your affairs and say all the things that you never got to say to people while you were alive… yeah, I would love to have that opportunity [laughs]. I would just set a better password on mine than Nat does.

Silber: This is something you get into in the back matter of the first issue. It’s not really addressed in the dialogue. But I love the idea that this actually started as a military product before and moving into more commercial uses, because I could totally see this as something that like Northrop Grumman–

Sebela: Yeah. There are people out there who, if they came up with this idea, would have solely focused on that aspect of it, and made it like a hard boiled war story. But I was much more interested in like, “what happens when this just gets in the hands of somebody who is not prepared to deal with with all of this?” Yeah, I love when, like, weird technology finally bleeds down to just regular people and seeing the chaos that can ensue. That was never intended by the manufacturers or creators, but you know, you put enough stuff in enough people’s hands and somebody’s gonna figure out a way to like, make it do things it’s not supposed to do.


Published by Comixology Originals, .Self #1 (of 5) is available now.

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